BRANDON — Eric Daub almost has to lie down to get into the car he drove to victory a few weeks ago. • His head barely pokes out of the top. To fit inside, the 16-year-old Brandon High School junior has to detach the steering wheel from the column, then reattach it after he buckles up. • It looks almost like a child's toy, but can hit more than 60 mph. During a sustained drive, it can maintain a comfortable 25 mph on a DC electric motor powered by two car batteries. Built low to the ground, it has virtually no suspension. • "It's not as smooth and there's less of a turning radius, but otherwise, it's about the same as a regular car," Daub said. • Designed as a project for Brandon High School automotive technology students and the school's year-old Electric Car Club, it won a dark horse victory against more experienced racers and builders in February at the University of South Florida. The race, organized by Electrathon America, tested the speed and the endurance of the cars and their racers, said Vic Nieves, Brandon High's automotive technology teacher and the club's adviser.
Nieves got his start building electric cars while working at his previous high school, Tampa Bay Tech. While there, Nieves heard from Ken Fiallos, an electrical engineer who had come up with a design for an electric car but needed help building it. Fiallos bankrolled the car, and the students built it.
Hoping to improve on that achievement, Nieves founded the Brandon High School Electric Car Club. The 25-member club was helped by students in the Advanced Auto Tech class, who worked on the car as part of their coursework.
In Electrathon Racing, speed isn't everything. The cars must be able to complete the full, hour-long run without changing batteries.
"You have to still be running at the end of the hour," Nieves said. "If you're not running, you lose."
Students learn a lot in his classes and at the club, and that carries over into other subjects at school, Nieves said. It also makes those other subjects more interesting because the students are learning to apply their knowledge.
"While they're learning gear ratios, they're also learning geometry and algebra," Nieves said. "They don't realize that they're learning a lot of stuff."
Jeremy Patram, 16, an auto tech student and car club member, said he's proud of the win at USF.
"We were the underdog because it was our first year," Patram said. "I thought all these older men, people that have done it for a long time, were going to destroy us. So to come out and beat them is a really good feeling."
Club president Nick Westbrook, also a 16-year-old junior, hopes to take what he's learned from working on the car and apply it to his engineering studies at either Georgia Tech or USF.
"It takes up a lot of time, but I believe it's time well spent," Westbrook said. "Not only will it help me to get into college, but it will help to make these (electric car) technologies become more practical."
Of course, there's a lot to be said for bragging rights as well.
"It was great, to go out for the first time and to not only finish but to take first place," Westbrook said. "It's great to beat USF on their home turf. If you can have a bunch of college engineers build a car and have high school kids not only give them a run for their money but win, that's really cool."